Japan 2018

A first impression of our trip to Japan, 6-22 March 2018. I took more than 1500 photos, it will take time to condense them into reports. Here is a travelogue with some highlights.

On 6 Match we took a JAL nightflight to Tokyo, where we arrived early the next morning. A connecting flight brought us to Osaka. We had (on purpose)booked seats on  the right side of the plane and were rewarded by a spectacular aerial view of Mount Fuji

From Osaka we took a train to Tanabe in the Wakayama prefecture, where we stayed overnight. It was cold!

8 March

In the morning we visited the Tokei-jinja Shrine in Tanabe.

After our visit we took a bus to Yunomine Onsen, where we stayed two nights. It is a quaint rural village with the smallest onsen of Japan. This Tsubo-Yu onsen, the wooden shed in the center of the image, has actually been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

We stayed in a small guesthouse,where we also had our (delicious) dinner and breakfast

9 March

The reason that we wanted to visit this part of Japan, was not only because of the many onsen , but also because there are numerous pilgrimage trails in this region, the Kumano Kodō. You can hike here for weeks, we only walked one trail, through beautiful forest, from Yunomine to the Kumano Hongū Taisha shrine

Kumano Hongū Taisha, one of the three main Shinto shrines  of the Kumano Kodō

After our hike, we relaxed in the Tsubo-Yu onsen. You must book for it, maximum two people, maximum 30 minutes. A unique experience…:-)

10 March

With bus and train to Kushimoto, the southernmost point of Honshū., Japan’s main island. The tourist attraction here are the Hashigui-Iwa rocks, a natural “work of art”

We had an elaborate sushi dinner here and, back in our hotel, a big, crowded onsen, with both an inside and an outside bath.

The next morning we enjoyed the sunrise from our hotel room.

11 March

This day we visited another of the Kumano Kodō shrines, the  Nachi Taisha shrine with the Nachi waterfall, the tallest fall of Japan. We stayed in a small hotel, with a view of the waterfall from our room..:-). And an exquisite dinner prepared by the kitchen staff

Left the impressive Nachi fall (130 m tall), in the middle a part of the shrine and right the iconic image of the three-tiered pagoda with the fall in the background

The sakura season had not yet started, spring was late and it was colder than we had expected. But here and there we could enjoy already nice cherry blossom trees.

12 March

Our next stop was Toba, on the coast, the center of the  pearl fishery and famous for its seafood. Here we had our most exotic seafood dinner. Left abalone sashimi !

In the past the pearl oysters were caught by ama’s, the diving ladies. Now they still do it for show, but the production process has become high-tech.

13 March

For the next night, Aric had booked accommodation in a Buddhist temple (!) in Agui, a small town south of Nagoya. The easiest way to go there, would have been to go first by train to Nagoya and from there to Agui. We took a more adventurous route, first a ferry from Toba to Irako, from there a bus to Toyohashi, then by train to Agui. We were lucky with the timing and reached Agui station around 4 pm, where the wife of the Master of the temple was waiting for us.

The temple practises Jodo Buddhism, the most common branch of Buddhism in Japan.

Left our rooms and right the temple, at the other side of the corridor. Food was served in our room, we shared the bathroom with the family, it was a very special experience

14 March

After breakfast and a short exploration of the village, we took a train to Nagoya, where we had booked a hotel for two nights. In the afternoon we visited the castle. Completely destroyed in 1945 by US army air raids, it has been rebuilt. Not as impressive as the Kyoto and Osaka castles. The sakura was just starting to blossom.

15 March

Nagoya is not particularly interesting, so why did we stay two days there? And why didn’t we make our trip a few weeks later. so the sakura would be in full bloom everywhere? The reason was that we wanted to attend the  Hōnen Matsuri festival , held on 15 March each year in Komaki, just north of Nagoya. This fertility festival is more popularly known as the Penis Festival. Highlight of the festival is a procession where a giant wooden penis is carried around

During the procession pretty ladies carry penises around, which you are encouraged to touch. There is a free flow of sake and everywhere are penises for sale as sweets, lollipops or ice cream. I took many pictures, will write a separate blog about the festival. It was an enjoyable experience.

16 March

We had three main targets for this Japan trip, the Kumano Kodō, the Penis Festival and the Fuji Mountain.  From Nagoya we took a bullet train north and changed to a smaller train for Kawaguchiko, at the foot of the Fuji Mountain. The mountain is often hidden in clouds, we had decided to stay here three days ,hoping that at least one day we would have a clear view. The start was not promising, when we arrived in our guesthouse, it was clouded and later it started to rain. Again a very Japanese style room. We had dinner in a tempura restaurant.

17 March

The next morning the rain had stopped and there was some blue sky! There is a famous viewpoint in Chureito, a short train ride from Kawaguchiko. I took already a “safety” shot from the station and that was a good idea, because when we arrived in Chureito and had climbed up to the pagoda, the mountain had disappeared in the clouds. Pity.

Back to our guesthouse, a bit disappointed. In the late afternoon, the sky cleared, the mountain became visible again. Near the village there was also a viewpoint, although without a pagoda. Before climbing up another safety shot, and again the mountain had disappeared when we reached the viewpoint. Frustrating.

The next morning we woke up at 6 am, the sky was now blue, but for how long? We walked up to the same viewpoint and this time we were rewarded. What a spectacular view. We were so happy.

Back in the village, we decided to take the bus up halfway the mountain. Because there was still a lot of snow, the Fifth Station was not yet accessible, the bus stopped at the Fourth Station. From the 5th station hikers climb the mountain in the summer season

But the view from the Fourth Station was also fascinating, especially the surrounding mountains, still covered with snow. We really were lucky.

The last night in Kawaguchiko we moved to another hotel, the most expensive hotel we have ever stayed..:-) . Not a room, but a suite. An onsen with a view of the mountain. A culinary nine course dinner. A once in a lifetime experience…:-)

View from the onsen

Dining in style, with a cup of sake.

Our dinner, I forgot to take pictures of some dishes. Left the Assorted Appetizers, in the middle Four kinds of Assorted Sashimi. Never before had lobster sashimi…

What an extraordinary day.

19 March

The hotel shuttle service dropped us at the station, from where we took the train to Tokyo. What a contrast to be suddenly in a major metropolis. Here the view from our hotel room, with left the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest building of Japan

In the afternoon we visited the Sensō-ji temple, the oldest temple of  Tokyo and a major tourist attraction. I was surprised to see many girls in traditional Japanese dress, apparently most of them are actually tourists who have rented this clothing!

For our dinner we took the metro to the entertainment district. In the picture to the right, you can see me at the end of the bar, eating my noodles.

20 March

One of Aric’s friends is living in Chiba, 40 km from Tokyo, married to a Japanese dentist. We spent an enjoyable day with them and their two adorable daughters. We visited the Nihon-ji temple complex, high up in the hills. It was cold, windy and rainy, but we had great fun. The picture to the right shows the Kannon statue, quite recently created in 1966.

The Arhat sculptures (right picture) are much older, constructed in 1774

The main attraction is an impressive 31 meter high Buddha statue, the  Nihon-ji Daibutsu, the largest rock-carved Buddha of Japan (1783)

After our visit Kimberley and Kubo invited us to a seafood lunch in a restaurant nearby.

On our way back we crossed the Tokyo Bay on the Aqua Line , an expressway consisting of a bridge-tunnel combination. Where the bridge becomes a tunnel, an island has been built (left picture). In the middle you see part of the machine used to dig the tunnel. After crossing over the bay, we had a final stop in Yokohama for a visit of the Ramen Museum, where you can try all varieties of ramen, the famous Japanese noodle dish (right picture). A rewarding, full day. Hopefully we can return their hospitality soon.

21 March

Our last day in Japan. The beginning of spring, but no spring weather. Rain the whole day. We decided to take it easy, had a look at some modern buildings and visited in the afternoon the Ueno park. The sakura season had started officially and there were already lots of flowers, but one or two weeks later it will probably much more impressive. Below, right picture, the famous Tokyo Tower at night, half hidden in the clouds, quite scenic

Flowers in the rain

Back in our hotel, we enjoyed the onsen. Actually this is a sento, an onsen uses natural volcanic spring water, rich in minerals etc, a sento uses heated tap water. For those not familiar with the Japanese onsen culture, before entering the bath, you must wash yourself thoroughly (right picture). You bath nude, nowadays male and female baths are separate. Tattoos are not allowed, and there are more rules and regulations. We are addicted to it, during our trip we had an bath almost daily, often twice a day.

22 March

We took a day-flight back from Tokyo to KL It was a wonderful trip

Japan trip, October 2014: Wakayama

Waka what?  Everybody knows about Osaka and Kyoto, but Wakayama will draw a blank with many visitors of Japan. It is not mentioned at all in the Rough Guide of Japan, for example!

Wakayama is located about 60 km south-west of Osaka and we went there in the first place because of our interest in the Japanese bath culture of the onsen, the hot spring baths. The hotel we had booked, Dormy Inn, has a big onsen which occupies one floor of the hotel. Separate baths for male and female. Because everybody is naked, it is not allowed to take pictures, so I have taken a few pics from the Internet to give an impression. During our two days stay we used this onsen 5-6 times, it is really addictive…:-)

The first evening we were looking for a famous ramen stall, but it was closed. So we tried our luck in a BBQ seafood restaurant, hoping for somebody who could speak a bit of English. That was not the case but one of the waitresses was Chinese, studying Japanese language. With her help we could order quite exotic food…:-). Interesting detail, in the picture to the right I am about to eat the BBQ-ed shell. It was quite tasty. Only after swallowing it I was told that the blackish part should not be eaten as it contained the shit of the critter…:-)  Well, I survived.

The next day was the only day we had rain. Aric had to use his raincoat. We had a snack for breakfast, bread with egg and noodles, a weird combination, but the taste was good.

Rain

Funny food

Our target was the Awashima Shrine in Kada, about one hour by train from Wakayama. Kada is a small seaside town. Walking to the temple we passed another small temple with a nice cemetery.

When we arrived at the shrine the drizzle had changed in a real downpour, so we had to take shelter for a while. The temple hall itself is nothing special, it is famous for the thousands of dolls and statuettes given to the temple by devotees.

Awashima Shrine

An orgy of colours and shapes. You keep taking pictures…:-) Click a picture to enlarge

Near the temple we found another nice restaurant for lunch. Again BBQ shells and seafood. Here they had a menu in English!

After we came back in our hotel, Aric went for another onsen session (he is more addicted than me.. haha) and then we went out again, first to the ramen stall, which was open now. They have won prizes with their ramen and deservedly so. The most delicious ramen I have ever tasted.

Ramen stall

Ramen

After this dinner we went to a public bath, the Hanayama onsen. Special about this onsen is the brownish  teh tarik color of the water. Also here no pictures, here is one from the Internet. Nice experience, people come here for their bath, young and old. But of course we remained outsiders because we could not speak Japanese…:-)

Hanamaya onsen

There are many more beautiful onsen in the countryside, access not always easy, maybe we can come again another time.

For our last night we had booked the Manpa resort, a ryokan resort with its own onsen, overlooking the sea. As we could only check in after 3pm, we had the morning to spend and we decided to visit the Wakayama castle.

That was a good move, because it turned out to be a much nicer place than the touristic and crowded Osaka castle.

On out way back to the hotel, looking for a suitable place for lunch. That can be really a problem in Japan, because local eateries are not always conspicuous. Fortunately often the signs use Chinese characters (with Japanese meaning) so Aric could guess the meaning. Like was the case with this canteen where we had lunch.

As the Manpa resort is a bit remote, we took a taxi. The resort has a nice view of the sea and also here one complete floor is reserved for the onsen. We had a nice room in Japanese style with a sea view.

Of course we went a few times to the onsen. There were not many guests, so we had the bath for ourselves, and even could take a few pictures.

The (expensive) Manpa package includes a traditonal Japanese dinner and a breakfast the next morning. The dinner was a delight, although we could not read the menu. But the waitress was very nice

Manpa dinner

Manpa dinner

The departure time for our flight back to KL from Kansai airport was at 11 am, so we had to wake up early for our last onsen and then our breakfast. The breakfast was again very traditional Japanese, very fishy, actually not easy to eat so early in the morning….:-)

Manpa breakfast

Manpa breakfast

It was a remarkable trip. Not always easy, I needed quite a few days to recover. But it will be worthwhile to come back again.

 

Japan trip, October 2014: Kyoto

Our host in Osaka had advised us which train to take to Fushimi, one of the “wards” of Kyoto, where Aric had booked accommodation in the Kuretake Ann-Inn . We arrived early, so  we dropped our luggage and explored Fushimi. A pleasant surprise compared to hectic Osaka.

The main tourist attractions of Fushimi are the Inari shrine (see below) and the Sake museum. The water here has a reputation for being very clear and natural and one of the large Sake distilleries, Gekkeikan,  is  located here.  It is easy to get addicted to this Japanese rice wine…:-)

After our museum visit we went to our guesthouse where we received a warm welcome from our host Adachi san. After retiring as a lawyer, he had developed the family house in a ryokan , a traditional Japanese inn. Our room had tatami flooring, sliding doors, there was a tea set and and kimonos were prepared for us. Recently he had added hot spring baths to the inn, and he was eager to explain how to use these baths in the correct way.

When we asked if we could have breakfast in the inn, he became even more enthusiastic,cooking was his hobby, but we could have it only two days later, because he needed time to prepare! We really felt at home in his inn, adn took a hot bath every evening. Following his suggestion to have a glass of sake while having your bath. Heaven!

The breakfast, in very Japanese style, was a delight, both for our eyes and on our tongue. The last night we movd to another, even more splendid room. Ryokans are not cheap, but it was one of  the highlights of our trip

Kyoto is a town of temples and shrines and visitors run the risk of developing a temple syndrome after a few days. We decided to limit ourselves to a few of the most interesting temples and started with the Kinkaku-ji temple, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Kinkaku-ji

It is a Zen Buddhist temple and the temple gardens are considered a prime example of Japanese garden design. The weather was beautiful, some of the trees were already in autumn colors. Of course we were not the only visitors..:-) It was nice to see quite a few Jaoanese girls in traditional dress.

 Four our lunch Aric had discovered on the Internet what must be the smallest sushi restaurant in the world! With our data plan enabled it was no problem to find the place. The restaurant has a tiny bar with only five seats. When we arrived, we had to wait until there was free space.
The man was preparing the food, his wife was serving tea and sake, The other customers were two ladies, very shy in the beginning, but after one of them had finished two (!) beers, they became more talkative. The food was delicious. Another highlight of our trip…:-)

In the afternoon we visited another temple, the Fushimi Inari shrine. Characteristic for this huge temple complex are the walkways lined with thousands of torii . A torii is the traditional Japanese gate, and, as Inari is the patron of business, each of these torii has been donated by a Japanese business.

Fushimi InariIt is a photographers delight…:-). The temple complex is located on a hill and it takes a few hours to explore everything. Also here of course many visitors. Here is a collection of pictures. The temple complex contains numerous smaller shrines and visitors carry small torii up, with a prayer written on it, and leave them at these shrines.

Even the sunset was red…:-) We could not reach the top of the hill, it was already dark when we left the temple. When you have only time for one shrine, I would suggest this one..:-)

The following day we visited two more temples. First the Ginkaku-ji temple, another Zen temple, famous for its sand garden. The sand mound symbolises the Fuji mountain.

Ginkaku-ji

Personally I like this kind of quite austere temple design.  Very pleasant garden, nice autumn colours.

In the afternoon we went to the Kiyumiza-dera Buddhist temple. It was a Saturday afternoon. there was a festive crowd, quite a few in traditional dress.

Kiyomiza dera

The Kiyumiza temple  was founded in 798, and its present buildings were constructed in 1633 It is is famous for its three “waterfalls”. Visitors can catch and drink the water, which is believed to have wish-granting powers

I found Kiyoto more attractive than Osaka. It still a big town, and the general townscape is ugly, but here and there you can still find nice old buildings, especially in the Gion district. Lively markets and everywhere temples. Here a mix of various scenes.

Talking with our host the night before our departure, he asked us, did you visit the Byodo-in temple in Uji? We had to confess that we had never heard about it. It is nearby, he explained,  and the temple figures on the 10 Yen coin. As we had some time in the morning before going to Wakayama, we decided to add one more temple to our list…:-)

And an attractive temple it was! An old one too. The central hall was built in 1053

Byodo-in

After visiting this temple it was time to leave Kyoto and travel to our last destination Wakayama

Japan trip, October 2014: Osaka

For many years we have been thinking about a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. China and Taiwan are “easy” countries for us (i.e. for Aric). Would the language be a problem in Japan? Finally we decided to give it a try, so we booked an Air Asia flight to Osaka. A 9D8N trip, two nights in Osaka, three in Kyoto and three in Wakamaya. Aric was the organiser, I just followed him…:-)

In Osaka he had booked, via Airbnb , a nice studio, near Dotonbori, the nightlife and entertainment district of Osaka. We walked around and bought snack food at several stalls.

The next morning we visited our first temple, just beside our apartment, the Namba Yasaka shrine . It is a Shinto shrine, old but rebuilt after the war. The enormous lion head-shaped hall is quite spectacular. Religion in Japan is a confusing mixture of (animist) Shinto and Buddhism. Devotees write their prayer on a small plaque, called ema, and hang it in the shrine, where the kami (spirit/god) can read it.

After this quiet start, a hectic morning followed, as we had to solve two problems. First we had to find an ATM machine that accepted my (Dutch) bank card. Surprisingly many ATM do not have  the “Maestro” option. Fortunately we had exchanged already some money in KL. We also needed a data plan, because we use Internet a lot while exploring a town, especially Google Maps. At the airport we could not get it. Using WiFi in our studio Aric had found a Citibank and a big telecom shop near the Umeda Sky Building, so we decided to go there, using the subway. The Osaka subway is not for the faint-hearted, but we managed..:-) . The Citibank accepted my ATM card, later we discovered that most 7-Eleven stores also have ATM machines which accept Maestro. We also found the telecom shop where Aric bought a data plan. But we could activate it only in our studio, so that first day, we did not have our Google Map.

Our next destination was the Castle of Osaka, the main, and according to many the only tourist attraction of Osaka…:-). The origins of the castle date back to the 17th century, but also here it was severely damaged in the war and later reconstructed. Located in a park, surrounded by a moat. Quite impressive. Lots of tourists.

Castle Osaka

For lunch Aric had chosen a local restaurant where they served BBQ-ed Kobe Beef. He had the coordinates, but we had no Google map. What do to? We walked a lot, partly underground from one subway station to another, we crossed shopping streets. We even asked policemen. Finally we found it. But it was closed…haha

Instead of Kobe beef we had some snacks and then went to the Harukas 300 building, the tallest skyscraper of Japan, 300 meter high. From the observatory floor we had an impressive view of Osaka. We spent some time there because we wanted to see the sunset (which is early, around 5:30 pm).

Before looking for dinner we first visited the nearby shopping center, where Aric bought a samurai sword! The customs in KL was at first a bit suspicious about it, but this was a ceremonial sword, not sharp, so it was not confiscated…:-). Walking back through the market, we finally found a BBQ restaurant, where we had Kobe beef. Expensive but delicious, almost melting on your tongue.

It was a long day, with many new impressions. The town architecture is not attractive, gray and boring.  Streets are clean, we did not see any graffiti. The Japanese people are friendly, but communication is difficult. And they are very disciplined, when the pedestrian lights are red, nobody will cross. The school children are wearing identical uniforms, quite cute.

We stayed two nights in Osaka and that was enough.